A basic moral principle
There is a basic principle of morality which states: “The end does not justify the means.” Just what is the meaning of this statement? Each of us can be faced with an array of problems. Our goal may be to solve those problems. That, in itself, is a good thing. However, simply because we wish to bring about a good solution, or end, as it is more technically called, does not mean that we can use any and every way, or means, to bring that about. To give a simple, and somewhat exaggerated example, let us propose the following: “I would like my family to have a nice vacation.” In itself, that is a good and praiseworthy end. However, if I then go out and rob a bank in order to pay for that vacation, I am not using a legitimate means!
The confusion of a praiseworthy end, along with the blurring or justifying of any means to attain that end, is not a new problem. Satan tempted our first parents in the garden by promising them great knowledge if they gave in to his temptation. Knowledge is a good thing. Disobeying God’s commands in order to achieve such knowledge is not.
Saint Paul also addresses this in his Letter to the Romans (3:8), in which he answers those who accuse him of claiming that the end does justify the means.
Saint Augustine reminds us that no morally wrong action may be taken, even if we seem to have a good reason for that action, and even if we have a good intention motivating us (Contra mendacium, chapters 1 and 7).
Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) was always conscious of giving clear direction in the midst of a society which was undergoing great upheaval after the Second World War. He restated the Church’s traditional moral teaching on this question in these words: “God desires us always to have, above all, an upright intention, but that is not enough. He also requires that the action be a good action. It is not permissible to do evil in order to achieve a good end” (Address, 18 April 1952).
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